One recent afternoon at a beauty school in Downey, about three dozen students filed freshly-made acrylic nails on plastic dummy hands as an instructor walked around the room, inspecting their work.
“Bastante bien, si?” the instructor said, commending one student on a job well done. “Muy bien.”
The class, as the Cosmetica cosmetology and barbering school, is all in Spanish. Many of the students at the school are immigrants from Latin America.
Like Edna Herrerra, who came 10 years ago from Guatemala. Her specialty is styling hair.
“I love what I do,” she said in Spanish. “I’ve been a cosmetologist since 1993, and this is what I love to do."
For a dozen years, before she came to the United States, Herrera had her own salon. She tried to apply for a state cosmetology license after she arrived in the U.S. But she learned she’d need a Social Security number. Because she was in the U.S. illegally, she didn’t have one.
But the rules are changing. Under a state law, known as SB 1159 that was passed last year, California's 39 professional licensing boards will soon be required to accept applications from people using what’s called an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, or ITIN. It’s what immigrants typically use to pay taxes when they don’t have a social security number.
It appears this law has motivated a wave of immigrants to enroll in school and prepare for state exams. Herrera is one of about 200 students who has signed up to study at Cosmetica this year to prepare for a license, said Julie Landeros, whose family owns the school.
“It’s been people that have been working illegally in a salon because they were not previously able to go to school,” Landeros said, “or apply for a license because they didn’t have a social security number.”
Now, people who’ve successfully finished training as beauticians, barbers, real estate agents, accountants, acupuncturists – even as nurses and doctors – may apply for a state license using the ITIN.
State officials said it opens a door not only for those who are in the U.S. illegally, but for other immigrants, for example recent legal permanent residents who have yet to obtain Social Security numbers. However, it doesn’t otherwise make obtaining a license any easier.
“You have to do the same thing that anybody else has to do, which is to receive whatever training is involved, pass whatever competency tests are involved,” said Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the state Department of Consumer Affairs.
A bill borne of a law school grad's challenge
Photo by Dan Tuffs for KPCC
The new law has a broad reach many didn’t expect — but it was inspired by a much narrower measure that applied to licensing lawyers.
“The law originally was passed in response to the Sergio Garcia case,” said Kevin Johnson, dean of the UC Davis law school, referring to a case decided by the state Supreme Court last year involving a law school graduate who didn’t have legal status.
Sergio Garcia came to the U.S. with his family when he was a toddler. He completed high school and college in the United States, then eventually law school, and passed the California State Bar exam.
But the state Supreme Court wouldn’t grant him a law license because of his immigration status. After a long legal battle, the court concluded in late 2013 that Garcia could be admitted if there was a change to state law.
The state legislature made the change that would allow Garcia to become licensed. Not long afterward, some state lawmakers took it a step further.
“I think the idea was, well, if lawyers shouldn’t be required to be legal permanent residents…other kinds of professionals shouldn’t be limited as well,” Johnson said.
There was some opposition. Earlier on, the federal government sided with the state Supreme Court’s initial decision not to grant a law license to Garcia, and some state lawmakers stuck with this opinion.
"We had lawmakers here in California that were very concerned about creating a law here in California that would be doing in direct opposition with federal law,” said Amanda Fulkerson, a spokeswoman for the Republican Caucus of the State Assembly.
Federal law bars employers from hiring unauthorized immigrants. But they can be self-employed – for example, Sergio Garcia, who is now an attorney, has his own law practice.
Johnson pointed out that many recent state and federal laws benefitting immigrants have favored the college-educated and the young. But this new state law, SB 1159, will have a broader reach, and could give older immigrants and those working in trades, new work opportunities.
New opportunities for older immigrants
Caption: Edna Herrera practices cutting hair in class at Cosmetica in Downey, CA on October 5th, 2015. (Photo by Dan Tuffs for KPCC)
Edna Herrera, for example, is 44. She speaks mostly Spanish and has been a hairstylist all her life. She supports her elderly mother with her wages.
When Herrera first came to the United States, she took a part-time job in a salon, sweeping up hair clippings and cleaning up and, occasionally, cutting hair. She eventually found work as a stylist, but her hours were still limited.
Last spring, Herrera was having a rough time. She was working in a salon, but could only work afternoons because the owner was afraid of state inspectors coming in the morning. She helped ends meet with a second job as a waitress.
Even so, state inspectors did show up at the salon one day, and she was slapped with a fine that cost her more than $1000 — about three weeks’ earnings, she said.
"I felt depressed and sad. I felt like I didn’t know if I should keep going, or change my line of work,” Herrera said.
She began looking around online for answers - and that’s how she learned that she could get licensed.
“At first, I didn’t believe it,” Herrera said.
She signed up at Cosmetica last May. Now in an apprenticeship program, she is earning her cosmetology credentials while working at a salon.
She comes in for classes once a week. Once she finishes the program, she can apply for her state license. Landeros said most students finish the program within 18 months to a year.
Herrera said that already, working as an apprentice with a provisional permit and knowing that she’s heading in the right direction helps.
“I feel more secure,” Herrera said. “I have more confidence when I deal with my clients. I’m happy.”
But there will still be limits: Even with a license, Herrera will have to be an independent contractor — or she can open her own business again.